At first glance, Natsu Onoda Power may not seem like someone who would write and direct Wind Me Up, Maria!, the new go-go musical premiering at Georgetown University this weekend. After all, she was born and raised in central Japan, studied theater and printmaking at Northwestern University, and authored a book on post-World War II manga.
But scratch the surface and you’ll find a serious fan of the genre who just might have gone to more go-go shows than you. Power moved to D.C. in 2005, and two years later she first encountered go-go with the man she would later marry, chef Tom Power. “We were in his car and he put on a Chuck Brown CD,” she says. “I didn’t know what it was. I was like, ‘What is this sound? This is great!’”
Once Natsu heard live go-go, she immediately found a link between D.C.’s continuous percussive groove and her own work in theater. “Chuck’s shows reminded me of the kind of theater I wanted to make. There’s a lot of exchange between the performers and the audience, and it was nonstop, with no discernible transitions,” she says. “One big challenge for me in theater is transitions, how to keep it going with the same kind of drive and energy. Chuck’s shows were incredibly inspiring for me.”
Still, getting a handle on go-go authenticity can be tough for anyone who hasn’t grown up in the DMV, and that’s where Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris steps in as Maria’s musical director and band leader. A popular vocalist on the go-go scene and currently with Rare Essence, Shorty provides crucial credibility. Known for his singsong vocal style and ever-present aviator shades, Corleone is also a compelling stage presence. At a recent rehearsal at Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center, he stood on top of a table, making ingenious use of recent RE lyrics for the show’s opening announcements. His voice could be heard one flight up.
The plot of Wind Me Up, Maria! involves a young woman, born and raised in Southeast, who attends Georgetown. She is struggling to find direction when she is hired as a nanny by a wealthy single mom with a brood of politically correct kids. Maria introduces the kids to go-go, and because this is that kind of musical, hijinks ensue. And while Maria! has plenty of laugh lines, Power touches on issues surrounding gentrification as well as the District’s inability to elevate go-go in any meaningful way. The cast, led by GU freshman Myiah Smith as Maria, consists of Georgetown students along with members of Capital Kidds, an ensemble of performing tweens mentored by Shorty.
Like Maria, Smith grew up in Northeast Washington. Smith’s grandfather played in 100 Years Time, a popular funk band during the early ‘70s, so she has some connection with local music. “This production is an accurate reflection of what D.C. music has gone through and continues to go through,” says Smith. “It’s great to see a writer like Natsu shed light on issues like gentrification. That’s what the arts are really about.”
Maria!’s music includes original material by Shorty as well a few go-go classics performed by the production’s “GYB” band, which includes scene veterans Quentin “Shorty Dud” Ivey and Mark “Godfather” Lawson. A keyboard player who has performed with a number of bands, Lawson hopes that Maria! can nudge go-go in new directions. “It’s good that we get this opportunity for sharing knowledge of the original style of go-go and where it came from,” says Lawson. “It’s also helping the youth who perform the music to understand that there are other ways to perform go-go. You can get into the community theater, you can into dance programs, you can even do cruises.”
From the start, Shorty was intent on staying true to go-go. “We needed to make sure the script supported the history of the music,” he says. “There have been some conversations, with me saying, ‘this may be a touchy subject right here.’ So we have made sure we are representing the culture.”
Authenticity was paramount in the production. Wiley Brown, son of the late Chuck Brown, coached the actor playing his father to help him replicate Brown’s signature guffaw.
While the production is slated to run through Nov. 12, Power hopes that Maria! won’t end there. “This is an interesting time for go-go, with a lot of renewed interest,” she says. “Go-go belongs in the city, not just in clubs. And so this show is taking go-go out of its usual club context and making it accessible for people who are not 21 and for families, too.”
Power’s goal is to attract both new audiences and longtime go-go fans. “I really hope anybody and everybody will come,” she says. “But I do need some audience members who are familiar with go-go, so they will know what to do during the call and response.”
At Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center to Nov. 12, 37th and O Streets N.W. $7-18. (202) 687-3838. performingarts.georgetown.edu.